Three things we learned by confronting the right

October 10, 2017

In early October, white nationalists organized pop-up protests in two cities to reassert themselves after weeks in the shadows following the bitter and vocal opposition that erupted after the fascists' violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Eight weeks to the day after Heather Heyer was murdered by a white supremacist who drove his car into a march of anti-racists, white nationalist Richard Spencer and dozens of torch-bearing white supremacists marched through Charlottesville, Virginia, to Emancipation Park to rally around a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. In Portland, Oregon, Joey Gibson and Patriot Prayer held a similar last-minute protest as the Portland Marathon took place.

The reactionaries organized their actions without advance publicity so that anti-racist protesters wouldn't have time to mobilize. This shows how the far right has been forced on the defensive in the aftermath of the carnival of hate in Charlottesville.

How were the counterprotests that helped turn the tide against the far right built? Here, members of the International Socialist Organization involved in the organizing talked to Danny Katch about important lessons they learned from their experiences.

Lesson number one: Ignoring them doesn't work
Michael Fiorentino, Boston

When the far right came to Boston in May, the left admirably stepped up to organize a challenge to them, but unfortunately, it turned out to be extremely difficult to bring in broader forces. It was quite startling to be outnumbered two-to-one by the far right--especially in Boston, where hundreds of thousands had mobilized for the Women's March and against Trump's first Muslim ban.

The far right felt comfortable coming into our counterprotest to try to record people and bait them into interviews, which they then spliced up and shared with their troll army on social media. At one point, a Proud Boy broke ranks and punched an anti-fascist protester.

We had already seen very concretely in Berkeley [at an April "Patriots Day" rally] what they were capable of--physically attacking the left to drive us off the streets and seize public space. But the lack of a response in Boston showed that it wasn't clear on a national level what kind of threat they represented.

Anti-racists take the streets in Berkeley to challenge the far right
Anti-racists take the streets in Berkeley to challenge the far right (Thomas Hawk | flickr)

Then, of course, masses of people were shocked and sickened by the sight of torch-wielding Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the murder of Heather Heyer. It became very clear that this was a national issue and an emergency after Donald Trump said that neo-Nazis were "very fine people."

That shifted people to a different perspective about the need to confront the right, which was reflected almost immediately in Boston when the far right tried to have another rally the week after Charlottesville.

Some 25,000 people showed up to protests the far right, which was driven off the streets by a human wave--they scurried off ahead of schedule under heavy police protection. It was kind of a sea change in the way people thought about confronting fascists.

While May was a demoralizing defeat, the Boston anti-fascist mobilization on August 19 was a clear victory won by mass protest. The far right was routed--it was by the most decisive blow struck against their momentum since the election of their sympathizer Donald Trump.

Not only did their turnout wilt in the days leading up to the August 19, with high-profile speakers like Gavin McInnes canceling their participation, but dozens of far-right rallies were cancelled in the aftermath of Boston. It was a confirmation of the perspective that our side's most potent weapon in the struggle against the far right is our numbers.

We shouldn't become complacent and assume that one mass protest will defeat them. They've been licking their wounds, but also preparing to go back onto the offensive. Fortunately, August 19 in Boston gives all anti-fascists an example of how we can organize and win.

Lesson number two: Build a united front
Nico Judd, Portland

Extremist white nationalist groups are at home here. Oregon was founded as a whites-only state in 1859, and there were exclusion laws throughout the 20th century that kept people of color literally marginalized and afraid.

We also have a very rich tradition on the left in Oregon, particularly anarchists and socialists. So when the far right started rallying in Portland earlier this year, people were pissed off and weren't satisfied with being complacent. We loved hearing that sentiment, but how to confront the right was a really crucial question.

We had to fight against the culture here that looked to the approach of a radical minority engaging only in physical confrontation. Because we know that if we want to fight and win against the right, we need numbers.

As Marxists, we in the ISO see the self-emancipation of oppressed and exploited groups as essential. This fight has to be of the people and by the people, not with the people standing on the sidelines as the brave few come to the front lines to save us.

That means we knew we had to do the work of mobilizing the greatest number of people who we know stand against Trump's agenda.

We've been organizing in Portland with other groups for years, so we already had relationships that we could call upon when we knew that Patriot Prayer was mobilizing. We were able to bring organizations we knew and organizations we had yet to build relationships with together in the same room for an initial coalition.

We didn't come up with a long list of demands or points of unity. We focused on concrete action. We wanted to bring together anyone who was committed to building the largest mobilization to confront the fascists. And that was a really powerful first step.

We brought out 1,500 people on June 4, and again on September 10, we got thousands of people to drive the fascists out of Portland with their tails between their legs. And they ran to Vancouver, Washington, across the river, we drove them out again. This was an amazing victory.

The beauty of this method of mobilizing is that through getting thousands of ordinary people involved in the fight, they begin to learn lessons for themselves.

There's nothing like watching these right-wing paramilitary Oath Keepers literally assisting police in arresting protesters to shatter the illusion that the cops are here to serve and protect you. Or watching our "fair and unbiased" local public news station literally delete us from the narrative.

So there are lessons of whose side the media is on, whose side the mayor is on--and of course, it goes all the way back up to the president and Congress. People get to learn those lessons for themselves, and that's how we begin to build the movement that we need to take on the right.

Lesson number three: Don't rely on politicians and administrators
Erica West, Berkeley

This is a really overwhelming time, so it's understandable that people would look to instructions for what to do. But it's important that people gain the political understanding that we have the capability of stopping the right.

We really do outnumber them, and it really is going to take all of us out in the streets and reclaiming our city--especially in a place like Berkeley that's been under attack so many times in the past six months.

When the far right called a "No To Marxism in America" rally for August 27, at first, the mayor told residents and students to stay away from any protests, and that the best strategy was to avoid them.

There was an angry response to that--and when we continued to organize a counterprotest without really paying attention to what the mayor was saying, the city of Berkeley started handing out "Berkeley stands against hate" posters.

Then, on August 27, when we had all these people in the streets, the mayor actually showed up asking to talk on the microphone at the rally. He was denied because he had previously told people to stay away--he hadn't told us he was coming, and we had a full program already set up and organized.

But this also speaks to a larger point: What we're doing doesn't need to be done by politicians or administrators. We don't need their permission or "expertise" to know what's going to work in fighting the right.

These people who are chancellors and administrators and politicians want the system to work in a particular way, and that doesn't include our participation most of the time. So a situation where thousands of people are out in the street, outside of their control--we provide our own security, we have our own program--makes them extremely nervous and oftentimes ends up going against their interests.

Not everyone who attends these protests is a socialist or leftist, but through the experience, they start to understand that maybe when the mayor tells me not to go to the protest, I'm not going to believe him.

There's also a question of priorities, and unfortunately their priorities are not what students need or the community needs. UC Berkeley officials may not like Milo Yiannopoulos, but they would rather spend a huge sum on security as a big gesture for "free speech," rather than actually keep people safe--or use that million dollars for paying for more professors or something like that.

Hopefully, with more people protesting the right and seeing that other ordinary people like them are coming out, in defiance of what campus administrations or politicians are saying, the next time, we'll have even bigger numbers standing in solidarity and also learning what side the politicians and administrators are on.

Further Reading

From the archives