What do we want from confronting the right?

March 1, 2017

Monique Dols writes from New York City on the discussion about Black Bloc tactics.

IN A Readers' View ("What shut down Milo Yiannopoulos?") responding to SW articles about the protest at UC Berkeley that forced the cancelation of Yiannopoulos' speech, David Judd argues:

[I]t seems clear that the Bloc's attack on the student center was, as things actually played out, one of the reasons that university police made the decision to call off the event--a decision which was a blow to the far right and a morale boost for our side. This remains a victory even if the means of winning it left the majority of protesters playing a more passive role than we might desire.

This takes for granted that our goal as socialists should be to "shut down" right-wing speech. There are elements of the left who see shutting down right-wing speech as the primary goal of the movement. We should take a different stance.

As socialists, our primary goal should be to stop the actual attacks from the Trump administration on our class through the waging of a struggle of the majority, for the majority.

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Challenging right-wing speech is not the end in and of itself, but one aspect of this struggle. We judge the success of these challenges not on whether the event or speech was canceled, but whether, through the action, the capacity of our movement and its mass character is strengthened and expanded.

THERE WILL be times when a protest against the right can mobilize such large numbers of people that we make their hateful speech unviable. This is what happened, for example, last year in Chicago when Donald Trump, as a candidate for the Republican nomination, was met by a mass protest--our side had organized so well that we made Trump's speech untenable.

Or to give an older example, David Judd and I participated in an action in the fall of 2006, in which we challenged border vigilante and racist xenophobe Jim Gilchrist at an event at Columbia University. At this event, the so-called Minutemen, who patrolled the U.S.-Mexico border with guns, shut down their event after spewing their hate unsuccessfully to room full of people expressing their outrage at the bigots and their solidarity with immigrants.

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Free speech, after all, guarantees the right to speak without intervention from the state. It doesn't guarantee the right to speak unopposed or uncontested from below.

But I want to focus on recent events at various universities, such as UC Berkeley, the University of Washington and New York University, in which small groups of people have taken matters into their own hands to attack and shut down speakers, through physical force and property destruction.

This is not a positive development. If this spreads and becomes the face of the movement in the public's eyes, our movement will not be emboldened. It will shrink and become less massive in character. And this, in turn, will make it more isolated and less effective at challenging the attacks on our side.

WE SHOULD, of course, take action against the right. Wherever we go, we pose a challenge to the racist filth of the unfortunately emboldened right wing in this country.

For example, on February 13 at Columbia University, I was a part of a demonstration against a talk by the ultra-right-wing Israeli ambassador to the UN--and Trump supporter--Danny Danon.

We asserted through protest and direct action that wherever representatives of the state of Israel go, there will be a pro-Palestine crowd exposing the racism and genocidal practices of Israel. In the process, we worked with other Palestine solidarity groups to build a presence that said no legitimacy for the racist state of Israel.

The event went on, but Danon did not go unchallenged. Most importantly, the collaboration among groups and individuals around the protest helped to strengthen the forces of our side on campus and beyond in how we work together in action to challenge Israeli apartheid.

We worked together to coordinate and lead chants, create a picket line in front of members of the Jewish Defense League, and outnumbered them 10-to-1 outside the event. We also worked together to challenge the speaker's lies from inside the event with signs and chants.

Inside the event, our side was a minority of the attendees, so they were escorted out of the event by security, which may not have been the case if a larger number of our folks were inside. But regardless, the collaboration was important, and we are stronger together in the lead-up to the Israeli Apartheid week of action at Columbia.

If, however, Black Bloc tactics had been employed to "shut down" Danon's talk through force or property destruction--there were rumors that this could happen, which we prepared to argue and organize against, if necessary--then this could have been a huge setback for the Palestine movement on campus.

Instead of being a "morale boost for our side," this would have served to cut short the collaboration of the consistently organized forces of opposition to Israeli apartheid and in support of the campus campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel.

Instead of what several participants have remarked was an important collaboration of individuals and groups and an important step forward for the movement, Black Bloc tactics would have relegated those forces to the role of spectators in a context that was theirs to be actors in.

And that isn't to mention the danger that such tactics would put the core of pro-Palestine solidarity activists on campus in, right before Israeli Apartheid Week.

Considering the huge consequences that fellow activists have suffered just from being accidentally near Black Bloc tactics on January 20 in Washington, D.C., we should consider the activists at Berkeley to be fortunate in not having faced the same or worse. We should anticipate that these tactics will result in actions from the state that are less favorable in the future, and plan to argue and organize against them when necessary.

When our side can confidently say that, through mobilization of mass forces, we have made right wing ideas less viable, we can clearly and confidently call this a victory and a "morale boost" for our side. But in this calculation, the balance of forces is not a footnote--it is a critical consideration when sizing up the situation and considering the tactics that will take our side forward and strengthen our organizational capacity to challenge the attacks from the Trump administration.

When the actors of our struggle are relegated to the role of passive spectators, this is more than just undesirable. It is a losing and demobilizing strategy that makes us more vulnerable to state repression when we need to be arguing for bringing the full capacity of our numbers to bear against the attacks on our class.

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