In Defense of Self-Defense

Issue 227

Liberal tolerance isn't enough to defeat the racist "alt-right," writes a witness to the terrorist attack in Charlottesville that killed Heather Heyer.

Mike Ben Zev Aug 19, 2017

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.


Photo: Charlottesville, Aug. 12, seconds after James Alex Fields drove his vehicle into a crowd of antifascist demonstrators. Credit: Mike Ben Zev.

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