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What the Media Gets Wrong About Antifa
Alt-right rallies are failing, thanks to anarchist action — so why aren’t we hearing about it?
O n August 12, exactly one year after the Unite the Right neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virigina, left over a dozen of people injured and one 32-year-old woman, Heather Heyer, dead, white nationalists, white supremacists and members of the “alt-right” marched on Washington, D.C.
To be more specific, about 20 to 25 of them descended upon Lafayette Park, a modest square of greenery that abuts the White House. I was there and could just about see them, huddled in a corner, protected by over a thousand Metropolitan Police officers, SWAT teams, and Secret Service agents. They were transported to a rallying point via a private metro car — an arrangement made against the explicit wishes of the transit workers themselves, and whose union, ATU Local 689, issued a strident statement condemning the public transportation agency for giving special treatment to a hate group. After the fascists’ exclusive train ride, they marched down Pennsylvania Avenue.
As a fitful downpour soaked the proceedings, organizer Jason Kessler — who was also behind the murderous 2017 event — clung to an American flag and spoke to the assemblage, acknowledging its meager size and thanking the police for their protection. His speech was drowned out by the thousands of protestors who surrounded the park and blockaded its exits in an effort to prevent the small group of fascists from leaving.
As I stood on the park’s perimeter with my anarchist group, I strained to even see the rally at all; the opposing crowd was too massive to catch a peek and too far away to engage in any kind of confrontation. Under heavy rain and heavier police protection, Kessler and those who joined him were bundled out of the park into waiting vans before their rally — which was initially scheduled for 5:30–7:30 p.m.— had even officially begun. The entire rally was a colossal self-own on the fascists’ part, and dealt yet another body blow to a struggling alt-right movement that has been limping along since it engineered the carnage in Charlottesville last year.
Kessler’s efforts to unite far-right extremists failed on a spectacular level thanks to a number of reasons, from the litany of lawsuits and other legal proceedings facing the organizers from last year’s Unite the Right massacre (including Kessler, who has been slapped with multiple lawsuits) to infighting within the alt-right and fear of reprisal that led prominent figures like white supremacist Richard Spencer, Chris “Crying Nazi” Cantwell, and neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin to advise their followers to avoid the rally for fear of being doxxed by antifa activists. As Anglin wrote rather prophetically on his white supremacist hate site, The Daily Stormer, “We do not want the image of being a bunch of weird losers who march around like assholes while completely outnumbered and get mocked by the entire planet.”
This is not a time for civility. This is a time for action.
Unfortunately for them, that’s exactly what happened — and largely because of the tireless efforts of antifascist activists who spent months organizing to shut down the rally alongside a range of different groups including Black Lives Matter, Howard University Student Power, Standing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), the Metropolitan Anarchist Coordinating Council, the International Socialist Organization, and many more.
The threat of doxxing by antifa has proven so effective at driving the alt-right underground that even neo-Nazi blowhard Spencer has whined that “antifa is winning,” a sentiment he expressed back in March but that seems to hold even more water in the wake of Unite the Right 2. After the rally, Spencer told Right Wing Watch reporter Jared Holt, “It’s really the end of an era, or a moment…I’ll be back. The Alt-Right will be back. We just need to be patient.”
It’s part of a continuing trend, one that criss-crosses the country and spans borders; white nationalists, white supremacists, and other far-right hate groups’ rally numbers are dwindling as the opposition to them grows broader and more militant. The threat of being exposed and ostracized by their communities, as we saw happen with many of the attendees of the first Unite the Right rally, was apparently on many potential attendees’ minds when they decided to bail on Kessler’s party.
As author and journalist Dan Arel told me via Twitter DM:
Many liberals and centrists argued that antifascist actions would lead to the rise of fascism, driving people further right, or that it would lead to what amounts to a slippery-slope argument that antifascists would start running around punching everyday conservatives. Yet, we haven’t seen either of these things happen. Instead we’ve seen their numbers drop and rallies are scarcely attended, and this is all thanks to antifa.
So, if antifascist actions are working, why aren’t we hearing more about it? The prevailing narrative that has emerged since the rally has not been the triumph of antifascist action, but a raft of liberal handwringing over the idea that antifa and the black bloc were being rude to and “attacking” journalists and other members of the press instead. The reactions from right wing media and the president were as expected, but it is interesting seeing the way that Democrats and progressives react to the specter of militancy.
“It’s what I’d expect, because it shows how disconnected the mainstream media is from communities; if you ask any person of color in DC if antifa is a violent thing, they’d probably just say no, because they’re with the community, and we are the community,” Rev, an antifascist activist who was present at the DC protest told me. “In a world where there are only two political sides, of course the side that doesn’t have a leader will seem crazy.”
As someone who was there on the front line, who is regularly stalked by white supremacists, and who also is a member of the press, I take umbrage with the misplaced apoplexy over a perceived lack of civility from those who are putting their bodies on the line in the fight against fascism. This is not a time for civility. This is a time for action.
I’ve seen no clearer metaphor of the press’s mishandling of antifa and black bloc tactics than the reporters desperate for the most clickable photo who blocked our way in the streets on August 12.
An actual understanding of the black bloc as a tactic is crucial. The black bloc is not a group, or a movement, as I’ve seen it mislabeled countless times (ditto goes for antifa). Again, it’s a tactic, not an organization, and one that serves a simple function: protection. Covering your face and body (known as “masking up”) protects individual identities. It gives cover for individuals who pursue autonomous actions, and protects protestors from being targeted by police and fascists with cameras. Just as doxxing is used as a tactic by antifascists to tear the hoods off of white supremacists, it is also a very real threat that they face from fascists and the state, who as we saw during the J20 trials, are both all too eager to prosecute or enact violence upon antifascist activists. I’ve seen no clearer metaphor of the press’s mishandling of antifa and black bloc tactics than the reporters desperate for the most clickable photo who blocked our way in the streets on August 12. It’s no wonder a media that so clearly misunderstands our tactics can’t see when it’s directly impeding them.
There are responsible ways to document protests and protestors, even those in the black bloc. What we saw from quite a lot of the media in DC during #DefendDC was irresponsible at best, and downright dangerous at worst. At one point, as the black bloc marched towards Lafayette Park to confront the white supremacist rally, a gaggle of media — literally dozens of people — stood in front, walking backwards, blocking our progress down the street. As a result, we were forced to stop every few blocks, which caused confusion and left us vulnerable to police aggression. Frustrated, people pushed past the lines of media, shouting, “Let us march! Get out of the way!” We were put at risk for someone else’s byline, and during this chaos, reporters and camera crews roamed through the bloc, shoving cameras in people’s faces, getting underfoot, and further hindering movement.
Some media were respectful of consent, which is very much appreciated and a good way to actually gain access in that situation; some antifascists don’t mind speaking to media as long as their identities are protected, but aren’t exactly thrilled when someone shoves a microphone or a camera in their face. The black bloc isn’t a picnic or a photo opp; it’s a militant direct action, and it’s generally a good idea to get the hell out of the way when several hundred masked-up activists are en route somewhere. Of course there can be no expectation of privacy when one is in a public space, but the mutual respect and civility that is demanded by the media needs to be reciprocated in order for anything beneficial to come out of a shared encounter like this one.
Now’s as good a time as any to answer the question: Which side are you on?
The media often paints antifa as some sort of collective bogeyman, but really, antifascists are not that interesting. When we’re not out in the streets or putting in work online, we lead normal lives; we just also happen spend a lot of time learning self-defense tricks, sorting through piles of black clothes (like any proper New Yorker), getting caught up in endless encrypted message threads, and going to a lot of meetings (seriously, so many meetings). I have a job and a cute boyfriend and a decent apartment and too many heavy metal records; I call my grandparents every week and grow herbs on my windowsill and complain about the subway. Like so many other people who are involved in this struggle, I’m basically the girl next door — just one who really, really hates Nazis, and who wants to make the world a more liberated place. Direct action gets the goods, and now’s as good a time as any to answer the question: Which side are you on?
“Arguing for the effectiveness of direct action is always an uphill effort in a society where voting and abstract speech are considered the only motors of change,” Mark Bray, author of Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook, noted on Twitter. “What would it take, for example, for mainstream pundits to concede that antifascism works? Acknowledging antifa success would require admitting there’s other ways to do politics. Their criteria already prohibit success though they present criteria for success/failure as neutral.”
Until the mainstream media and those who buy into their analysis open their eyes — and look past their camera lenses — at what’s actually happening in the streets and online, that criteria will remain flawed, and the people who are dedicated to fighting tooth and nail against fascist creep will continue to be maligned and disparaged in the press. It’s a shame, really. We’re out here fighting for you and the people you love — why won’t you fight for (or alongside) us?