September 6, 2017
Thoughts on antifa
by Josh Cook
Boston-area bookseller, Melville House author, and beloved MobyLives columnist Josh Cook first published these thoughts on his blog, In Order of Importance. We read them, loved them, and are grateful to Josh for allowing us to re-post them here.
There were a lot of antifa at the rally in Boston a couple of weekends ago. I saw them as I walked from the T station to the meeting place for the march to the Common, while walking through the march itself, and once we got to the Common and learned that the Nazis had left under police escort over an hour earlier. The debate around how those on the left (and, really, in the middle) should respond to the violence on the right and the inherent violence of white supremacy started long before Charlottesville. In its current incarnation, it probably began with Richard Spencer getting punched and with the violent conflicts in Berkeley that started on February 1, 2017. But that debate was given a different significance and a different urgency when Nazis murdered Heather Heyer with a car in Charlottesville. Mentally preparing myself for what might happen if I met Nazis in Boston, and seeing so many antifa in the crowd, galvanized my thinking about the debate. I haven’t come to any ultimate moral clarity (if such a thing is possible) but I feel I at least have the issue organized a bit more in my own head, and I hope that laying (some of) those organized thoughts out in a piece like this will provide a base from which the conversation can continue in a way that doesn’t weaken our collective resolve to fight Nazis. (More on that at the end.)
I also want to emphasize that these are just my thoughts, and though they come from some experience with activism and a life of political engagement, they are just my thoughts from my perspective. Furthermore, this isn’t a broad consideration of antifa history, tactics, definitions, and goals. If you want a fuller explanation and exploration of antifa, pick up Mark Bray’s excellent Antifa: The Anti-fascist Handbook at your local independent bookstore.
Antifa at Protests Makes Me Feel Safer
Whether it’s a party or a protest, a large group of people in a relatively confined space has the potential for chaos and violence. Maybe it’s someone in the crowd being a jerk, maybe it’s a police officer overreacting, maybe it’s an outside agitator being aggressive, but a peaceful protest can turn into a dangerous riot quickly. On our way to the rally, I was nervous because I expected a lot of marchers and counter-protesters would be relatively inexperienced. Maybe this was their first rally or their second rally after the Women’s March or the Science Rally, or whatever. (For me, it had been well over a decade since I’d been to any protest or rally with the potential for conflict.) It is always great to welcome new people to activism, but there is a level of danger, when there are new people in, well, any activity. (I’m suddenly reminded of floor hockey in gym class.) With big crowds in volatile situations, sometimes inexperience can be just as dangerous as malice.
But antifa know what they’re doing in crisis and confrontational moments in protests. They won’t panic. They won’t start running all over the place. They won’t create a stampede. Knowing there would be a lot of people vastly more experienced with protests than I was, along with those who were newer, greatly reassured me.
Furthermore, had there been conflict, antifa would have born the brunt of it, allowing the rest of us to get away. Their tactics tend involve coordinated group movement and standing in place, and they often attend rallies with the understanding or plan that they will get arrested at some point or at least engage on some level with either the Nazis or the police. This not only creates a physical barrier between elements of chaos and potential violence and those who are not prepared to engage with chaos and violence, it also creates an organizing principle. So, I knew that, if things got crazy and I no longer wanted to be engaged in whatever was happening, all I had to do was spot where the antifa were gathering and go away from them.
Whatever your ultimate decision about antifa and their tactics, they make protests and rallies safer for everyone else, even when they are not putting themselves between violent white supremacists and you. Furthermore, also remember that, whether you agree with their specific tactics or not, like those who sat at lunch counters during the Civil Rights movement and occupied factories during the Labor movement, antifa are choosing to risk their bodies so you don’t have to.
White Supremacy is a genocidal belief structure. Whether it is the overt genocide of the Holocaust or against the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere or the reserved genocide of slavery in America (in which a white person always reserved the right to kill a black person even when he did not exercise that right), white supremacy believes in genocide. We forget that far less than a century ago, the KKK practiced ethnic cleansing through lynching and radical terrorism through violence and destruction. They hung people from trees. They beat them. They threatened them. They burned churches. They murdered allies who came down to help in the struggle for Civil Rights. Those extreme acts of violence are not a consequence of white supremacy, they are not an accident of white supremacy, they are not drawn from fanatical interpretations of white supremacy, they are not fringe white supremacy. They are white supremacy. In direct contrast, the violence of antifa, to date, has all been non-lethal and all been confined to direct conflicts with fascists who came to fight. Antifa have not gathered at Richard Spencer’s house. They have not dragged David Duke through the streets. They have not burned down white supremacist churches. Do I really need to say that a street fight is different from a mob dragging a black man out of his house and lynching him?
Even the fake images and sensationalized reporting used to paint antifa as inherently violent essentially reveal the opposite when scale is considered. Take, for example, the images used after the Boston anti-white-supremacy rally. One was of a man standing in formation holding a pole with a nail in it, an image actually from a protest in Dover, England. Another was of a young woman sitting down holding a sign that said “All My Heroes Kill Cops,” an image that is at least four years old. Or, to put this another way, after the images of a horde of torch-bearing (a clear reference to lynching) white supremacists attacking a small group of anti-racist protesters on the Friday night of Charlottesville, including hitting them with their torches, the violence of the radical left is supposedly proved by pictures of people just fucking standing there. Whatever the message of the images themselves, there is a difference in scale between hitting someone with a torch and just fucking standing there.
However you feel about the violence around antifa, flattening the scale ultimately helps fascism by creating this false of idea of equal opposing forces. It allows you to say, “Sure, Republicans have an ideological connection to the KKK, but you could argue the Democrats have an ideological connection to antifa,” as if that were in any way a balanced statement. I mean, let’s try it this way: “Sure, Republicans have an ideological connection to Nazis, but Democrats have an ideological connection to people who fight Nazis.” Or, let’s look at this issue using the current phrasing: Is it OK to punch a Nazi? When we reframe this question so scale is considered it becomes: Is it OK to cause brief physical discomfort with little (but not zero) risk of permanent harm to someone who believes they are allowed to kill Jews and people of color?
This flattening of scale contributes to the double-standard in our discourse that allows Republicans, conservatives, the radical right wing, and other reactionaries to get away with bad arguments and bad actions. Whenever anyone on the left goes too far (or anyone who can be convincingly associated with the left whether they’re antifa, black bloc, or whatever) as seems to have happened in Berkeley more recently, it inherently threatens the entire legitimacy of whatever spectrum they can be associated with — and yet, somehow, Republicans and Conservatives don’t have to fear that same delegitimizing from Dylan Root, Cliven Bundy, or Richard Spencer. This double-standard is especially ironic given that there is a pretty straight line between small-government conservativism and Cliven Bundy’s radical anti-government actions and between Nixon’s Southern strategy, the overtly racist policies of the Reagan/Bush era, and today’s white supremacists and Neo-Nazis.
I think we can attribute part of this double-standard to the success of the myth of liberal bias. Because liberals and Democrats have been inherently motivated to prove their lack of bias, they are much quicker to condemn and critique those on their side, whether those condemnations are warranted or not. For a recent example of the impact this drive has on policy, look at deportations under Obama. In many ways, I’m sure he felt he had to “compensate” for the Dream Act so as not to appear, I don’t know, too caring, or “too liberal.” Deportations increased dramatically during his administration. (Not that that changed Republican perceptions or arguments about him — but more on Republican argumentation later. Actually, more on Republican argumentation right now.)
I think the other part comes from the fact that much (if not all) of the right doesn’t actually give a fuck about debate, dialogue, argument, and consensus, and will say or do whatever it takes to achieve their policy goals. If they want to cut spending on the poor, they’ll talk about being fiscally conservative. If they want to increase military spending, they’ll talk about national security. If they want to cut taxes on the rich, they’ll talk about simplifying the tax code. If they want to disenfranchise minority and other likely democratic voters, they’ll talk about voter fraud. To put this another way, Republicans and conservatives only care about being in power and will make whatever argument they think will get them there, whereas Democrats and liberals have at least some commitment to a coherent worldview and are thus limited in what they can argue and assert by, you know, responding to the actual world. This raises an important question for those who argue that dialogue and discourse are the only legitimate way to engage with contemporary white supremacy: what evidence do you have that the right, let alone the radical right, actually cares about dialogue and discourse?
When you gang up on someone and kick them when they are down, that is assault, not self-defense, whether you’re wearing all black or festooned in white supremacy symbols, but, again, when we compare violent acts against violent acts, a difference in scale is obvious. In Charlottesville, four white men (some with sticks or poles) beat one black man in a police parking garage for minutes, badly bloodying him. In Berkeley most recently, we saw three to five men swinging their fists at one man on the ground and a much larger group, some with shields and maybe a few other weapons, pushing two Trump supporters (one of whom may have used pepper spray first) out of the street and knocking them down, with one man (not the one with the pepper spray) getting kicked while he was down. From the best that I can tell from the reporting, neither resulted in any significant injury. And, unlike in Charlottesville, these were aberrations during an otherwise peaceful protest (you know, according to the guy who filmed one of them) that was intentionally distorted by those on the right and sensationalized by the mainstream media because, well, that’s what the mainstream media does. Both absolutely constitute assault, but assault on a different scale than was committed by the white supremacists. Furthermore, quoting from the Los Angeles Times:
“Police, and in some cases other counter-protesters, stepped in to halt the violence or escort the victims away from the area.”
Unlike in Charlottesville, both on Friday and on Saturday, other people, including those on the left, stepped in to stop the violence. Where were those “very fine people” people on the right in Charlottesville? (When antifa cross the line other antifa stop them. When fascists cross the line, antifa stop them.) But once again, the “antifa are just as bad” argument has gained new traction, because the left is held responsible for giving the right anything to distort, while the right is not held responsible for their distortions.
To put this another way, the liberal resistance must be perfect in all of its actions and any flaws or mistakes are seen as fundamental expressions of the failings of the ideology itself or reasons to undercut it from the middle, while the conservative, right wing resistance to President Obama was allowed to lynch him in effigy, lie about his birth certificate, and attribute all kinds of horrible flaws to him without any justification, shatter longstanding Senate norms, without delegitimizing conservative and Republican ideology. Antifa must be perfect in their ideas and actions in order to be legitimate, while Republicans can fuck up all the time, have Dylan Roots, Cliven Bundys, and Timothy McVeighs swimming around on their fringes and suffer no consequences in terms of the debate or policy whatsoever.
How Many More Traumatized Bodies Do You Need to See?
One the tenets of the nonviolent civil disobedience is that the violent response of police to people walking on a bridge or sitting at a lunch counter reveals the violence inherent in the system to those who would not otherwise see it. Furthermore, the images of those traumatized bodies have an emotional impact on those who otherwise don’t feel they have something at stake in the conflict. (Though, Sontag at least thinks it’s a bit more complicated than that.) For the modern Civil Rights movement, I think there is clear evidence that those images of traumatized bodies helped shift mainstream public opinion in favor of civil rights and away from racist and segregationist polices. (Others might argue that the nonviolence would not have been effective on its own and that the various race riots and other violence or threats of violence played at the very least a supporting role, but I don’t know nearly enough about the subject to comment.) Even more recently, the Black Lives Matter movement was greatly strengthened by the dissemination of images and videos of traumatized black bodies.
It is true that images convey emotional impact, and it is true that our ability to quickly share images influences policy debates, but, at the same time, what would we have actually learned about violence, whose mind would have actually been changed, what more just policy could have come about if Cornel West had had the shit beaten out of him? How many more traumatized black bodies do we need to see to know that the KKK is bad? Do we have the right to demand other people take a beating to preserve our own sense of moral purity?
So Much More to be Said & Nothing More to Be Said
I’ve left a lot out of this post, even of my own thoughts. There is a ton of historic context around radical left-wing activism, radical right-wing terrorism, the codification of racism in American policy, and the authoritarian tendencies in the Republican party. There are arguments around how we would perceive American white supremacists and fascists if they were foreigners, around the tension between protecting lives now while continuing to lay groundwork for more lasting progress, and around the nuance of particular weapons and particular physical acts. I also haven’t spent any time on the idea that there is no antifa when there is no imminent threat of fascism and that the easiest way to get rid of antifa is to show up at counter-protests yourself and vote Democrat in the next few elections.
I honestly, despite all the above words, still don’t know exactly what I believe the ultimate ethics are of antifa as a tactic. I think ganging up on someone and kicking them when they’re down is wrong. (Pretty sure most antifa think that as well.) I also think, personally, as a white dude, if I’m in a situation in which a Nazi is attacking a person of color, I have a responsibility to intervene and in some way put my body between the Nazi and whoever he is attacking — and what happens after that, I don’t know.
But despite all the nuance, despite all the disagreement, despite the different ethical frameworks, we all agree that every human life has value and that, though we need to continue to have these debates about the methods of the resistance, both as effective tactics and as moral acts, we cannot let those debates drive us apart. We cannot let our front be divided, we cannot let Nazis slip through the cracks back into open society, and we cannot let this president, his family, and the Republican party use white supremacy or anything else to turn this country towards fascism. And even if you believe all violence is wrong, even if you believe antifa are hurting the fight against white supremacy and fascism in America, even if those black masks and organized young people scare you, remember there is one absolute unquenstionable difference between antifa and Nazis. Nazis are Nazis, while antifa are people who fight Nazis. Remember what you call the people who fought Nazis the first time around?
Josh Cook is a bookseller at Porter Square Books. His first novel, An Exaggerated Murder, was published by Melville House in March 2015.