On Antifa and Political Violence
Anti-fascist activists and the topic of political violence have taken center stage after counter protesters successfully shut down far right-wing rallies in Boston and Berkeley. The overwhelming presence of people arrayed against the fascist forces seen in Charlottesville has caused the cancellation of over 60 rallies across the country. As has happened before with previous clashes, mainstream media has decried anti fascists and even been sympathetic to the alt right and other fascist groups. There is a wide condemnation of anti-fascists and of political violence from progressives like Robert Reich or commentators at the Young Turks to centrists like Jonathan Chait and the Washington Post to ardent conservatives such as David Frum and Evan McMullin. Even among some leftists there is a questioning of the tactical value of the violence antifa uses. While that has some merit, most of the discussion over political violence is largely ahistorical and lacks the nuance needed. Common conceptions of free speech, violence, and power are unequipped to properly tackle the topic.
The first item that must be addressed is that the amount of violence was grossly exaggerated in proportion to what actually happened at Berkeley. Several on the ground reporters have severely disputed the accounts of mainstream and right-wing media. Three to five street scuffles cut on twitter are suddenly portrayed like thousands of people clashed in Berkeley and burnt the city to the ground. Conveniently for the far right, media coverage framed this entirely as Antifa attacking “peaceful right wing demonstrators” ignoring how often it was members of the “peaceful” right that approached counter protesters doing Nazi salutes and pepper spraying people. The organizers of the counter protest, hardly able to respond to the national papers and pundits, said antifa was defending them. There was also little to no mention that anti-fascists defended Cornel West and other clergy in Charlottesville. The media has let slip how they feel about antifa in the way they have covered events like Berkeley. Countless editorial board pieces and op-eds from those that don’t even have a clear understanding of what happened betray their own bias and agendas.
Political Violence is Bad, Nonviolence is Good
The people that condemn the violence of antifa often ignore the violence that America was built on and that continues to go in the country and perpetrated by America abroad. In the case of David Frum, Evan McMullin, Jonathan Chait, or papers like the New York Times and Washington Post, advocated for and continue to support the violence America commits. For every punched Nazi that freaks out one of the powerful, there are countless atrocities that go entirely ignored and unchecked: The wars we’re waging abroad and the bombing campaign taking place in 7 countries that’s supported by all the people that clutch their pearls over antifa. The murders and executions by police that we’ve caught on camera and all the ones that have gone criminally unnoticed. Tens of thousands that die each year without healthcare, and how we were on the brink of thousands more dying were it not for a bitter senator. The millions of people over the past decade that have been ripped from their homes by ICE. You don’t see these issues framed in the terms of “unacceptable violence.” That’s because it is acceptable violence to them. The violence of white supremacy, imperialism and capitalism are all okay because it comes from institutions that they believe in and cherish. Antifa stands against fascism and the institutions that led to its rise. That is the key difference for liberals and conservatives alike. Violence that’s imposed on black and brown people at home and abroad is okay, but when upper class white supremacists are punched they lecture and scold.
The attempt to glorify non-violence and portray all past movements as purely non-violent is another ahistorical notion. The Civil Rights Movement was not entirely non-violent and those that did practice non-violence still met a violent end like MLK. Not only did King have much more sympathy for those that would riot or resort to violence, but King leveraged himself between the more violent and radical groups and the Democratic establishment to force Democrats to compromise or else they would have to deal with an even more radical group of people than himself. Without that diversity of tactics, the Civil Rights Movement would not be as successful as it was. This argument also ignores that slavery and Nazi Germany were only ended through violence as well. Nonviolence is no magic bullet or shield against white supremacy or fascism. Stokely Carmichael said it best about the principle of nonviolence: “Dr. King’s policy was that nonviolence would achieve the gains for black people in the United States. His major assumption was that if you are nonviolent, if you suffer, your opponent will see your suffering and will be moved to change his heart. That’s very good. He only made one fallacious assumption: In order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience. The United States has none.”
Illegitimate Ideologies and Power
One of the counters to antifa often comes from the perspective of free speech. This conception of free speech is entirely limited to the First Amendment rather than a broader conception beyond case law. We have to recognize the Nazis, the KKK, and white supremacists’ core belief system is not a valid or rational belief system. There’s no reasonable pathway to thinking genocide is acceptable. Therefore, debate and a “free and fair, open exchange of ideas” have no bearing or impact. And the violence of Nazis and white supremacists inherently threatens the freedom of marginalized communities in America. When they march freely, it is clearly meant to intimidate and threaten those they see as inferior. When these groups attempt to organize they must be driven out. There is an imbalance of power at hand, and they attempt to use theirs to accomplish their goal. It will not be defeated by debate because you can’t rationally negotiate with someone that believes others are subhuman because of their race, religion, sexuality or more. It is in this case where marginalization is needed, and sometimes violence is employed in doing so.
Some say the best way to handle this is to ignore them. People cite Milo as somebody that should be ignored because he’s just a bigoted troll meant to gather attention. While that’s certainly one of his goals, it doesn’t take into account what his campus appearances are meant to do. These events are hosted by respective chapters of College Republicans. While this may seem innocuous it must be acknowledged that many members of these chapters were also at the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. In regards to Milo at Berkeley, College Republicans there have clear ties to white nationalist organizations and figureheads. Milo is someone who has appeal across the spectrum of the right. A speaking event is an opportunity for College Republicans to recruit and gain new members while further radicalizing them. Disrupting events like these is a way to prevent organizing, not simply being mad at a racist provocateur.
Liberals have been resistant to a strong left-wing response to Trump and in the past few days have been hostile to anti-fascist activists. While there was a large uproar over Trump equivocating counter protesters and neo Nazis, it wasn’t long before Democrats began to do the same. Nancy Pelosi issued a statement condemning anti-fascists (before even Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell) and the Berkeley mayor was quick to propose classifying antifa as a gang. This is a ridiculous notion since antifa isn’t any singular organization or defined group, just a brief coalescing of leftist groups dedicated to a unified cause of beating fascism, white supremacy, and capitalism. California already has an incredibly suspect gang policy that raises several civil liberties concerns. If that wasn’t enough, California law enforcement has been hesitant to treat white supremacist movements as a gang.
By doing this they just give into right wing talking points and only embolden these fascist movements. The same way they got the clear wink and nod from Trump, they will see that the center is more focused on the left than the right and collaborate with cops, who have their own history of being filled with white supremacists. Being as charitable as possible, these statements are a win for right wing commentators and figureheads who have been trying to equivocate those who stand against Nazis and the Nazis. It opens the door for even more sympathy for these reactionaries from across the media landscape that already gave platforms to their views. At worst, this is blatant collaboration, unintentional or not. The push for police and other racist law enforcement further towards focusing on antifa will obviously and predictably lead to a more emboldened fascist force to rise up.
The overall goal and principles behind anti-fascist activists are good and necessary. The way to defeat this horrendous ideology is through marginalization and in some circumstances, violence occurs in the process of that goal. It’s unsettling, and it should be, but we must recognize that this is the conclusion of countless other violent events. If you’re going to have a problem with violence, going to the roots rather than surface level condemnations is needed. Institutions that hold power have let this pass whether it be schools, police, or federal law enforcement. Overall systems of capitalism, imperialism and white supremacy have normalized violence to a degree that makes street violence inevitable.
Across the political spectrum there are little alternatives except those on the left, the very people standing in solidarity with anti-fascists. Heather Heyer was murdered on the streets by a Nazi, but there is a nonstop handwringing from media about punching the very same group of people that killed her. Because those within antifa also stand against the institutions that liberals cling to no matter how much they’ve decayed, they’ll always find the time to publish op-eds and make statements against them. With no alternative solution to the fascists on the street or the rot in our institutions, standing with the left and anti-fascists is the necessary and only choice.
You can express solidarity by donating to the bail fund of one activist arrested for defending her community here: https://www.youcaring.com/ymendez-916462.