Mike Ben Zev
I was marching beneath a blue Virginia sky, alongside some 500 antifascists, when it hit me — all of us — all at once. One minute, we were united in song, clapping and chanting our way down Water Street following the eviction of the “alt-right” from the public space formerly known as Robert E. Lee Park. The next minute, we were scattered — some of us shattered — by the force unleashed by the gray Dodge Challenger driven by a white supremacist with a license to kill.
James Alex Fields had been spotted at Emancipation Park earlier in the day, mingling with members of Vanguard America, as young men like him milled about, toting guns, clubs, shields and a variety of flags: the Stars and Bars of the Confederacy, the black-and-blue of Blue Lives Matter, the “national flag of Kekistan” inspired by the battle standard of the Third Reich.
It would take the murder of a young white woman that day to drive the point home: American fascists aren’t here for a walk in the park. They aren’t out to engage in an exercise in free speech. Ultimately, they are out for power and they are out for territory. Terror can be a potent tactic when other tactics fail (as the Unite the Right rally had done so spectacularly that day).
That day, Fields, like so many of his comrades, was out for blood. Heather Heyer wasn’t the movement’s first martyr, and she is unlikely to be the last. Since 1990, more than 450 people have been murdered by white supremacists in the United States alone. Across Europe and the former Soviet Union, fascists routinely maim and murder racial, religious and sexual minorities, along with anyone who stands in their way.
When fascist forces are on the march, it is always a matter of life and death for those in the scope of their semiautomatics. In fact, white-nationalist ideology defends, and often demands, the extermination, enslavement and expulsion of entire populations. In this light, the “alt-right’s” love affair with General Lee, like its love affair with Adolf Hitler, should come as no surprise.
The question is what, if anything, is to be done when would-be mass murderers are given free rein to parade about the streets calling for blood. For decades, the liberals’ answer has been a simple one: not much. Indeed, liberals and conservatives tend to agree that fascists are best ignored, not confronted. A strategy of confrontation, some argue, does more harm than good, giving the far right free publicity, repelling potential allies, and attracting new recruits.
The problem with the liberal line is twofold. First, it is based on a moral theory and not on the historical experience of fascist violence. At no time has a strategy of non-confrontation served as an effective check on the growth of far-right movements or street gangs. By contrast, antifascist movements with a more confrontational stance have some history of success, as in the cases of those who opposed the British National Party in the ’80s, Aryan Nations in the ’90s, or Greece’s Golden Dawn Party in the 2010s.
Second, the argument against “antifa” rests on the notion that there is no clear and present danger to be confronted—that fascism can’t happen here, or now—and that any disruptive action taken by antifascist militants is therefore an overreaction. But the threat is real, and the threat is growing. Since the 2016 election, the far right has been reenergized and emboldened by its friends in the White House—and by the weakness of the opposition. Hate crimes have reached record levels, and rallies like Charlottesville’s have drawn record numbers.
The response from the left has failed to keep pace with this growing threat from the right. Deferring to Democrats and donors, left organizations have, with few exceptions, failed to step up to support antifascist organizing, leaving activists at greater risk of getting hurt, or worse. Left and liberal media have laid the blame for the violence at the feet of antifascists, equating the “alt-right” with the so-called “alt-left” (as Trump dubbed us in an August 15 press conference).
The reality behind the reality show is this: one side is openly advocating genocide. The other is trying to stop them. The Democrats won’t stop them. The AFL-CIO won’t stop them. The police assuredly won’t stop them, just as they failed to stop James Alex Fields in Charlottesville or Jeremy Christian in Portland, Oregon. In fact, recent reporting has revealed that police departments are welcoming outright neo-Nazis into their ranks. One imagines they feel quite at home.
The only force capable of checking the spread of fascism is civil society itself, self-organized for self-defense. Self-defense, to an antifascist, encompasses much more than a street fight. While antifa actions are typically associated with physical confrontation, it is but one tactic among many in the antifascist toolkit. It is also a tactic that carries heightened risks, especially for those who are already at heightened risk whenever they walk down the street.
Many antifascists prefer to do other work, engaging, for instance, in workplace organizing, in coalition building, in boycotts and strikes and even, from time to time, in political campaigns to defeat white supremacy wherever it rears its head at the local level. These tactics are less newsworthy than a battle royale. They are, however, more accessible to antifascism’s popular base.
Nonetheless, it was they who, when the Challenger plowed into the crowd, ran toward the crash and rushed to the assistance of the shell-shocked and the wounded. In a very real sense, this is what we do: we are first responders, called to the scene of a series of horrific crimes. Some of these crimes, such as slavery, were committed in the distant past. Others have yet to happen and can still be prevented. The only way forward, then, is to make fascism history again.
Before it’s too late.
Linda Martín Alcoff
The expected racist march was set to start. A large, multiracial crowd that included students, townspeople, curious young folks, and armed law enforcement had been steadily growing in size, waiting for events to unfold. Although it was a sunny, warm day, the atmosphere sent a signal of high alert. Nobody was quite sure what was going to happen. Crowds this large of blacks and whites together were not a common sight in this small Southern city, and the folks of color were not sure how the white people around them would react if things turned ugly.
Then suddenly, the march began, and just as suddenly, it ended. The antiracist crowd was too large, too vocal, and too angry. A black teenager hurled a brick, and it struck paydirt. The Ku Klux Klansmen were herded into police vans and scuttled off the street to safety. We’d won.
This was not Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, but Tallahassee, Florida in 1977. Forty years ago. Little, it seems, has changed. In Tallahassee, as in Charlottesville, the racist march was legal: It had a permit from the city, and the local American Civil Liberties Union defended its right to free speech. As in Charlottesville, the size of the opposition crowd led the police to force the marchers to forgo their planned parade route, for their own safety. But there were also some key differences.
In Charlottesville, the racists came out packing, with major weapons and shields. They felt no need to wear hoods to hide their identities: They could reasonably count on protection from the White House. Although the police cut short the Unite the Right March, they did not curtail the confrontation it set off, but let it play out, resulting in the killing of Heather Heyer when a neo-Nazi marcher crashed his car into a crowd of counterdemonstrators.
Today, the chant of “You will not replace us” signals that we are in a new historical moment, providing new fears and motivations to legitimate lynch mobs.
We have to understand that some of the best breeding grounds for right-wing extremism are beleaguered constituencies.
The events of Aug. 11-12 in Charlottesville have thrust forward two major challenges for social-justice activists across the country, particularly for white antiracists.
First, how should we respond to the public expression of racist hatred? And second, how can we compete more effectively for the working-class whites that this new array of white supremacist groups is trying to recruit?
I helped to organize the counter-rally in Tallahassee, despite being admonished by liberal friends to let the Klan exercise its rights to free speech. A host of local ministers and town leaders also argued that people opposed to the Klan should just stay away, that our presence would only augment the publicity they sought, and could endanger lives.
But neither the Klan nor today’s “alt-right” neo-Nazis are simply exercising free speech. Their events, websites and rallies are organizing drives designed to recruit followers, raise funds and excite their base. Their displays of armed power are designed to dominate the public sphere through threats and intimidation. Their memes and slogans aim to build a movement that will violently curtail the free speech of all those they hate. They are opposed not merely to our ideas, but to our very presence in “their” country.
We cannot cede the public square, even for a single day.
Getting Out of Our Comfort Zones
The second challenge is more difficult, for it calls on us to think beyond resistance and move outside of the comfortable circles of people with shared experiences and values. We have to understand that some of the best breeding grounds for right-wing extremism are beleaguered constituencies. Many are seeking solutions for their lack of economic and social success, and would have much to gain by allying themselves with working-class people of color to press demands for living-wage jobs, healthcare and free college education for their children.
But we also need to understand that they are also seeking a sense of belonging, a connection to something bigger than themselves and relief from the alienation and isolation that the mass societies of contemporary capitalism create. Identities are often avenues for community. The ability to build a diverse social infrastructure that will redress alienation is a difficult task, not one that we should smugly believe has already been accomplished.
“The first issue is how their current thought process is being reinforced, Mathew Fransen-Marsh, a young working-class friend from rural Pennsylvania, writes. “They’re being told by the ‘alt-right’ that the left is trying to take everything from them, exclude them from things and make them second-class citizens. They reinforce these mantras by pointing out exclusionary terms and legislation, making it seem like they’re being ostracized as the enemy. They literally convinced people that people saying ‘black lives matter’ were trying to state that only black lives matter. They use the typical emotional weaknesses of the average person to make them hateful and angry toward a group looking for equality. They use this to chip away, piece by piece, until they can pull these people in and convince them that they are their only allies. You see it every day.
“I know, because I used to fall victim to the common tactics they use, and only education helped me to realize the backward ‘logic’ I was being fed. I’ve been working on my family with such things because they used to hold such views, but it’s likely I’ll never get any of them to truly change their views, much less strangers.”
Mathew’s pessimism is belied by his own story of personal change. His “education” came in part from participating in a labor struggle in the hospital where he worked in the dietary department. A sense of belonging is just the sort of feeling that a union campaign can engender. People can learn to build trust and fellowship despite having different backgrounds and experiences. They learn to let each other speak and to listen more carefully to what everyone in the group says. Union success requires cooperation, and the daily practices that cooperation requires engender a bond.
Movements against identity-based forms of injustice — such as racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, and so on — face special difficulties in creating unity and trust among activists, simply because not everyone involved is targeted or affected in the same way.
The police are likely to respond more harshly toward nonwhites than toward whites, and the differences in our experiences produce some significant differences in our knowledge base. That cannot be swept under the rug in the name of an abstract unity, a shared commitment to justice or inclusion. Thus, in movements against identity-based forms of injustice, it can be hard to create the kind of social bonds that are strong enough to withstand the opposition’s subtle ideological maneuvers, as well as its physical threats. But we have to find ways to create a sense of belonging for all of those who suffer, for all of those willing to take a stand, for as many as we can.
The white-nationalist groups are offering a club where whites can belong, but only like-minded whites. Whites who disagree will be bullied, punched, kicked and killed. We need to make sure such whites know another world is possible, a world that will include them.
Linda Martín Alcoff is a professor of philosophy at the City University of New York and author of The Future of Whiteness (Polity 2015).
“Now I’m afraid,” she said. “I wasn’t before. Too privileged to feel fear.” The protest at Trump Tower was loud, so we, leaned in to each other as if whispering secrets. Another war chant rose from the people at the barricades.
“After seeing the car hit the marchers. Kill that girl,” her eyes fixed on some distant scene before returning to me, “I’m a white, middle-aged woman with a union job and now I feel the danger Black Lives Matters faced.”
She looked at me, “It took so long.” Shame and fear and awareness wrestled in her face. Yes, she was shielded by privilege. Yes, it cracked. Yes, she felt death brush her and was scared. I was scared too. I had blocked traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge, holding up my sign to lurching cars. I sighed and opened my eyes again. “You’re here now,” I said.
The Great Fear
We all saw it. On our screens, we saw the car plow into a march, activists thrown like rag dolls as it reversed, leaving broken bodies in its wake. Then the woman killed, Heather Heyer, smiling in a photo. Her murderer, James Fields, grim in a police mugshot. Fascists rallying to defend him outside a courthouse. Fascists carrying torches through a college. And then we closed the computer screens, terrified.
They are rising. Angry white men, marching under the black banner of fascism. Not in great numbers. Not with great political power, yet. They rise from the cracked American landscape like molten lava, hot hate speech, burning crosses, burning effigies, firing rounds of bullets at “running nigger targets.”
We carry the history of everyone killed by hate.
They rose with the President. When he campaigned, he spoke for them. When he held rallies, he stoked them like smoldering coal. When he won, he promised to make America great for them. And now, they step into the open, proudly, boasting of the coming race war. In the news reports, I see their rows of helmets and “Heil” salutes and remember tracing my fingers along the panels at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.
Walking by the laminated newspaper copies from the 1930s, I felt like they were mirrors of today. The same liberal panic. The same self-righteous victimhood of the Nazis. The same ugly hate wearing a mythology of racial superiority. Synagogues burned. Shattered glass, sparkling in the street.
I thought I left the museum, but months later everyday life has become an extension of its halls. Again the Nazi salutes. Again the shattered glass, now of holocaust memorials. Again the triumphant declaration of racism. I try telling myself, no, it’s not the same. It’s not. America 2017 is not Germany 1930’s.
It doesn’t have to be. I flinch when I walk near a television screen and see another Nazi, yelling. Or the President, washing the blood off their hands with his rhetoric of false equivalency. I flinch and fear tightens my chest, turns my eyes into tight screws and I begin to hate. I watch them march and fantasize buying a gun to go meet them and sweep it back and forth, firing as they fall.
And I realize that’s the trap they are setting. Hate for hate until we all descend into hell together.
“Glock 19, nine millimeter,” he says and pulls out another gun from a leg holster. I watch the white nationalist damn near re-enact a scene from the Matrix, where guns are in each nook and cranny of his body. The pile on his bed like an armory.
I pause the video and lean back, knowing he’d love to aim those weapons at me. Especially, me. A college professor. A “cultural Marxist,” corrupting the minds of white youth. When I listen to him talk about Black savages and his friends, earlier, rail against scheming Jews, it is clear that they need caricatures to fight because the fight gives meaning to their lives. They are arming themselves against an enemy that doesn’t exist. Me. You.
The Race Warrior role play only works in a mythology based on a lie, the lie that our lives are determined by our bodies, that buried deep in our DNA is the natural rank of humanity that nothing can change. Blacks will be Black. Asians, Asian. Whites, white. To see yourself as guardian of civilization, manning the wall against the barbarians is to admit you’ve lost connection to the world.
In the real world, all around is evidence of the dynamic change driving history. I’ve seen my students come out of the closet shyly and by next semester proudly kiss their same-sex lover in the hall. I’ve seen friends take off their hijab. I’ve seen families take in an addicted son and help him become sober. I’ve seen interracial couples raise their child to speak three languages and watch him grow big enough to live above borders.
Every day, I walk out into New York City, where countless immigrants came and were Americanized in its relentless vortex. Here, masks are peeled off. Languages mix. Music is reinvented. Politics churn. Here we are forced to acknowledge a humanist truth that is in stark contrast to racist mythology, which is that constant change throws us out of ourselves. If we are to live in the real world, we have to remake ourselves with others and in doing that rediscover how open we are to the new.
Another protest is called for tomorrow. And another after that. It’s good. It’s our responsibility. We of the left are the only ones who can create new answers. Every other political movement is stalled or going backwards. Liberals are defending a collapsed center. The right tries to remake a past that can’t return.
When I get the call to march, I know we’ll have the momentum. The Nazis are blinded by their mythology and can’t see how repellant murder is to the majority, regardless of it being framed as racial self-defense. Even so, we’ll be attacked again. Even if we stay on guard, some of us will get killed.
In our next march, I’ll look around and know we’re not alone. We carry the history of everyone killed by hate. We try to redeem their loss with new freedom for the living and the unborn. And as we write new signs and yell new chants, moving through the streets with us will be Heather Heyer, holding hands with Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner. Next to them, men and women wearing yellow stars. Nearby, slaves wearing shackles. In our march are the living and the dead, one carrying the other forward, saying, yes, of course, we are afraid. But that doesn’t matter anymore. Because we’re all here now.
Photo (top): Counter-demonstrators at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville on Aug. 12. Credit: Rodney Dunning.