Yesterday the nazis rallied at the Statehouse, and we—the antifascists—came out to oppose them. The best summary of events, plus photos and video, comes from Steve Ahlquist. I cannot recommend Steve’s article highly enough; it really gives the big picture of what happened, which was hard to see if you were a participant on the ground. Reading it in retrospect, I now understand all aspects of the day and how the events played out. What I want to do here is to highlight some of the key points and hash out general lessons.
First, my own narrative. When I arrived around 10am, the area around the Statehouse patio was fenced off and occupied by state police in their usual uniform. There were handfuls of us—some dressed the part of antifa with red bandanas covering their faces, bike helmets, antifa insignia, “We Are Anti-Fascist” stickers and such; others, dressed for a protest like you’d find on any other Saturday. Folks who had been to the last far-right counter-protest talked about how little the cops were involved or listened to, so the assumption was that they’d herd the nazis into the area behind the gate and keep us all separate.
I went to put more money in the meter a little after 11, and there they were—15 or so of the Proud Boys, getting out of what appeared to be a black hotel shuttle bus (I stupidly did not catch which hotel). Dressed in black shirts that said “SECURITY” with red “Make America Great Again” hats and khakis, they were marching over to the Statehouse lawn. When I returned, there they were, on our side of the barriers with no cops between us and them. There were some tense moments at this point, and it was really clear that they were there to provoke us, to get someone to throw a punch. They were also ready for the fight—these guys look like they train for it, and they had the gear for it too. There were some scuffles, some paint and smoke and cow manure, some bloody noses—and then they marched off behind the row of riot police who had shown up, marching in formation to allow the “Resist Marxism” people into the fenced-in area on the Statehouse steps.
The “Resist Marxism” group is here to put fascist and white supremacist ideas into the mainstream debate. They are here to make it acceptable to shout “fire” in a crowded theater when there is no fire. They are here to Make America (even more) Racist Again. Their “rally” of about five people included support for Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation, a Donald Trump cardboard cut-out, a Gadsden Snake flag, a rendition of the Pledge of Allegiance meant to provoke the counter-protesters, and signs about “we defend free speech”. All of that is meant to make them seem no more than your run-of-the mill conservatives. But “Resist Marxism” is code for the panoply of white supremacist ideas: a program to establish a “white ethnostate”, opposition to affirmative action and rights for people of color, women, LGBTQ people, and immigrants. These people are nazis, full stop. It brings to mind the quote, variously attributed to earlier American socialists, that “The Ku Klux Klan comes wrapped in the American flag, as it were, advocating the American principles openly, with a Bible in its hand, and the very next day they are passing their neighbors with a mask over their faces.”
At this point, the fascist sound system was competing with another sound system that was broadcasting a message threatening to arrest anyone who did not disperse within some minutes. Was this a decoy by the nazis to get us to go away, or a real threat from the RI state police? I asked a statie directly, and he had no idea who the message was coming from—and even told me they were trying to figure it out too. Soon thereafter, however, the riot police started to move into a linear formation and advance against us. Panic and running were interspersed with appeals to calm and orderly retreat. As we crossed the street to the train station side, the Proud Boys came back down the street and stayed on the opposite side. Behind them, the riot police were backed up by men in full military garb carrying what appeared to be semi-automatic weapons. (There were also reports of snipers stationed on the balcony of the statehouse.) And then more riot police converged on us from the left, the mall side; people started talking about being penned in. So we dispersed in small numbers back toward downtown Providence. I have never seen such a show of armed force from police in Providence at a demonstration.
Some time later, after we had dispersed and the fascists and the cops had left as well, I caught up with a few comrades again near the statehouse. As we were discussing, a reporter from WJAR Channel 10 came up and asked if we’d speak on camera about the event. Everyone else backed away, so I (stupidly) assented, knowing that only a small portion of what I said would be incorporated into the report, and likely in a distorted way at that. In retrospect, I think we should probably all, always refuse to talk to local media. They always twist our words to make us look bad.
Here is the article and video report from Channel 10. Aside from the horrifically poor editing job, the obvious transcription mistakes from the video report to the article, and the fact that they showed up long after the event was over, the whole thing is cast to make it seem like we were the provocateurs and the purveyors of violence. They did include my quote about the massive police presence, though not in full. Here is a video a comrade took of me doing the interview; the sound quality is not great, but you’ll get the idea. They seemed sympathetic, and I did my best to present what was going on—especially when they asked about violence. But I should have known they would use me to misrepresent what was going on.
A comrade commented to me: “I ran into their reporter an hour after the dispersal (which was when the guy with the stick that she mentions in the article tried to menace us). I told her (off camera) exactly how the first fight started, identified Tiny (Proud Boy from the PNW who flew in for the rally) as the guy who started it (as video has confirmed). And she didn’t investigate and include that in the article. Should have known when I saw she was with WJAR.”
Another comrade commented: “I lived until a few weeks ago in Tiny’s hometown. These people don’t have the financial resources to fly all over the U.S. to attend their fascist actions. They are being supported by big money. In May, Tiny beat up a 17-year old black kid at the town’s mall. It was the kid who got detained by the mall guards, and spent Mother’s Day weekend in County jail. Tiny still hasn’t faced a court for this.”
And sure enough, after the portion of the interview you can see above, they asked me about violence and bringing my children. I did not bring my children because I know the nazis and the cops are violent. You can clearly hear me say that I was not there in August; and I prefaced the comment in their report with an explanation that the violence came from them. But they have a narrative about how violent our side was in August, and they meant to distort what I said to support that narrative. I don’t believe one word of what they say about August, and I know they completely mischaracterized the events of yesterday. They weren’t even there to see them!
Long story short: don’t believe the bourgeois media, and frankly, don’t engage with them, either.
What does it all mean?
“Fascism has opened up the depths of society for politics. Today, not only in peasant homes but also in city skyscrapers, there lives alongside of the twentieth century the tenth or the thirteenth. A hundred million people use electricity and still believe in the magic power of signs and exorcisms. The Pope of Rome broadcasts over the radio about the miraculous transformation of water into wine. Movie stars go to mediums. Aviators who pilot miraculous mechanisms created by man’s genius wear amulets on their sweaters. What inexhaustible reserves they possess of darkness, ignorance and savagery! Despair has raised them to their feet, fascism has given them a banner. Everything that should have been eliminated from the national organism in the form of cultural excrement in the course of the normal development of society has now come gushing out from the throat; capitalist society is puking up the undigested barbarism. Such is the physiology of National Socialism.” –Leon Trotsky, “What is National Socialism?”, June 10, 1933
“C’est bien d’une lepénisation des esprits qu’il faut parler.” –Arnaud Desplechin, quoted in Libération, October 20, 2013
The era of Trump has ushered in a new golden age for the far right. This is an international phenomenon: all over the world, right-wing populist political electoral victories coincide with the emergence of neo-nazi formations that are openly marching, proclaiming their hatred of immigrants and people of color, pushing their arguments and trying to sound main-stream. As they see it, the window has once again opened to make their ideas part of mainstream discourse, after the defeat they suffered at the hands of the civil rights movement and the global radicalization of the 1960s and 70s. They intend to take full advantage.
I believe we need to understand this development as part of a global political moment, namely the crisis and decay of the neoliberal model of capitalism. After 35 years of global capitalist expansion along neoliberal lines—privatize, deregulate, smash unions, pillage the environment—the whole project went into a deep crisis in 2008. There was, of course, the financial crisis of that year and the ensuing recession—which only lasted until 2010, though ordinary people were still talking about it as a current thing years later, and no one has since talked about the “good times”. But there was also the crisis of legitimacy of all the neoliberal institutions—the mainstream media outlets and the established political parties of both center-right and center-left in most countries around the world. Suddenly, elections ended without a decisive winner, and no party could form a government without a coalition that included the other party. The whole system was rotting, but true to the neoliberal mantra, there was no alternative.
OK, there was an attempt. 2011 was that attempt, globally, to push back against the rotting neoliberal order. From Tunisia and Egypt to Occupy, with so much in between, people seemed to be rising up, taking to the streets, demanding another world free from the inequality foisted on us by the 1%. But that movement was still nascent when it faced police and military repression from squares in the Middle East to public spaces in the US. In the US, it was disconnected from the actual working class, from any material level of power within capitalism. It was easily defeated, and it was Democratic mayors around the US who conspired to stop it. While Obama was hammering teachers with Race to the Top, bombing civilians with drones in Afghanistan and other places, and putting the brakes on Black Lives Matter any way he could, our side lost its bearings. Most of us seemed to have retreated to the weak zone of electoral politics to feel like “we’re doing something” or making some progress. It was telling that the up-and-coming career politicians all avoided yesterday’s rally.
The right, on the other hand, has organized itself variously since at least 2008, first through the Tea Party movement, and later through the Trump campaign. It has advanced in other forms throughout the world, including the National Front in France, the Five-Star Movement in Italy, the BJP regime in India, Duterte in the Philippines, etc. It puts forward a program of economic nationalism and xenophobic isolationism, invoking the fascist mantra of “Make ___ Great Again”, harking back to a mythical golden age that never existed in order to draw in and comfort masses of people who have felt shafted by the neoliberal capitalist framework. Its basis is a squeezed and stagnant middle class, and its condition of development is a disorganized and scattered working class. This is a global predicament, and doubly so, precisely because this is the alternative that neoliberalism denied.
As a teacher, it has been extraordinarily disturbing to me to see the mainstreaming of ideas that were once completely unacceptable in public discourse. In the past year, I have seen more Confederate flags in school and around town than ever before. Right-wing conspiracy theory about the antifa movement got onto the school morning announcements. And I had a student who was, quite simply, alt-right—except that he thought there were too many Jews on the alt-right! I should emphasize that this is still a tiny minority of students, but it coincides with a much more frightening development—the callous silence of so many others: white colleagues who are indifferent to the experience of students of color and queer and transgender students; men and boys who don’t believe girls; those who write off the trauma symptoms of students, especially girls and queer students, as “overreacting” or “seeking attention”. The indifference and antipathy are painfully breathtaking, and they have a political foundation in the decay of capitalism.
This is the point of the new fascists: they are trying to appeal to a more mainstream audience, attempting to provide an alternative that will take us back to the Dark Ages. We face environmental catastrophe, the proliferation of climate refugees, the decline of modern civilization—and the nazis say, “Make Our Shit Great Again—but only for us! To Hell with everyone else!” That is why they must be confronted physically and exposed politically. That is why we cannot give any ground to the notion of “free speech” for nazis—the state will always allow them free speech and protect them with riot police! Their “free speech” is incitement to violence. It is not benign, it is not legitimate, and to allow it to continue is to allow the barbarism of our current world to expand and to triumph.
We need a serious, mass anti-fascist movement. We need serious antifa fighters with proper training—and those of us who don’t have that training (like me) need to be extremely conscious of what skills we don’t have. But a corps of fighters is not sufficient, because the question is primarily a political question about the balance of class forces and the trajectory of society at the current moment. We also need a mass movement that brings thousands, not 200, to protest 25 nazis. We need a movement that confronts and delegitimizes racism in schools and workplaces. We need a movement that understands the connection of the fascists with the mainstream political establishment, both its right wing and its so-called “liberal” wing whose role is to undercut a radical struggle for a different society in which fascism no longer has any basis for existence.
I don’t have a blueprint for this, and I struggle to hold on to hope for it. But I do think things will change, and that our actions in the lead-up to that change are not immaterial. I’ll close with these words from a comrade: “We need to connect the ties between these fascist street fighters and those who feed them. We need to expose that. And we need a movement that also exposes the Democratic Party acquiescence, and practical complicity with these thugs starting at the local level. If Trump loses the elections in 2020, this won’t go away. It is up to us to study this particular historical context, and help gather the large forces required to disintegrate these fascist formations.”